Go small or go home

iPhone SE an coffee
iPhone SE an coffee (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

When I first heard about the iPhone SE I wasn't that moved. After all, it was just a small version of an iPhone 6s without 3D Touch. It was the low end of the line product, clearly designed to bring the iPhone line onto a base level of performance and features.

Then a funny thing happened. I kept running into folks who were abandoning their state-of-the-art iPhone 6s devices in favor of the iPhone SE.


But perhaps there was something else going on. Perhaps bigger wasn't better?

I've been an iPhone Plus user from the beginning. It has a great big screen and fantastic battery life. How could an SE replace that?

It was time to experiment. I dug out my trusty old iPhone 5s—the same form factor of the SE—and decided to see if I could live with it.

What was I giving up? Well, first there was that large, beautiful screen. There was the long-lasting battery. There was 3D Touch. With trepidation I popped my SIM into the old iPhone 5s and something funny happened. My iPhone was no longer a small iPad.

Small and light, I could slip the iPhone 5s into a pocket and it would essentially disappear. I could use it well with just one hand. And the battery life still got me through a full day and then some.

Sure, I missed the 128GB storage to keep tons of content with me. I missed the better camera, and the view that only the screen of a Plus could give me. It turned out, however, I didn't need any of that.

The size and shape was perfect. One-handed use was a delight. It turned out I didn't need a phone that could meet all my productivity needs. I didn't need to carry a lot of content, such as videos or games that I'd never used.

My colleague, Serenity Caldwell, spoke about this phenomena on our podcast right around the time of the iPhone SE launch, and it turned out trying was believing. When the iPhone stops being a primary computer it becomes a companion. Something that was there to help me run my life, not something that runs my life.

The first Blackberry I owned did pretty much one thing. Email. It was magical. I could see all my email out of the office, triage and respond as needed. My little iPhone brought back the delight of taking control of email. I could triage, respond quickly or defer until later. I could access Feedly, and Twitter. It turned out that inferior camera was being used more often because it was just easier and faster. It turned out that I could live without 3D Touch and not miss it. Even the processor of the iPhone 5s was more than adequate for me.

If only, there was something with that faster processor, a somewhat better camera, and support for Apple Pay—the things that turned out to be more important to me that size, store, and specs

If only there was... an iPhone SE.

It's clear that Apple might have underestimated the demand of the iPhone SE. As I write this, it's still somewhat constrained. Consumers defied the market trend of larger phones. It turns out there's a lot of folks for whom bigger is smaller.

It's important to move markets forward, but you can't always listen to the whims of the market, either. Henry Ford once supposedly said if he asked his customers what they wanted, they'd have said "faster horses." Sometimes, though, customers really do know what's best for them.

Perhaps Apple was looking a little too close at the competition, as well as the demands of press and analysts, to create larger phones. Perhaps that was the direction Apple could move toward as the technology for a good, larger phone experience was possible.

No matter, no vendor should be in the position of the king, who looks out the window, and sees his people marching by, who thinks, "I must find out where they're going so I can lead them."

For me, my iPhone 5s might be a little dated for my needs, but I now suspect there's a rose gold iPhone SE in my near future.

Michael Gartenberg

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.